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The Many Merits of Cycling Infrastructure

By German Lopez · May 2nd, 2013 · Commentary
commentary 2013-05-02

To cyclists, it’s a given that Cincinnati desperately needs more bike lanes. But recent research shows bike lanes don’t just pose advantages for cyclists; they can also help local economies and public health.

Anyone who’s traveled downtown on a bicycle can attest to how scary the roads and sidewalks can be at times. Cyclists know cars and pedestrians will rarely accommodate anyone on a bike, even a person who’s just trying to get to work, go to a bar or exercise. Not only can that lead to injuries, but it can also diminish cyclists’ will to go out altogether.

For Cincinnati, that psychological dissuasion can produce worse economic outcomes. Just like the permanence of streetcar tracks can encourage businesses to develop along a route, bike lanes can foster business along their own routes.

In 2012, the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) found cyclists in Portland, Ore., were more likely to return to convenience stores, drinking places and restaurants and spend more money overall. Non-cyclists usually spent more money during single visits, but that didn’t make up for cyclists returning to the venues more often. 

The economic benefits were also found in the New York City Department of Transportation’s 2012 “Measuring the Street” study, with local businesses on Ninth Avenue seeing a 49-percent increase in sales after a bike lane was built — much better than the 3-percent borough-wide average increase.

The New York City study also found a 58-percent reduction in injuries to all street users on Ninth Avenue, vindicating cyclists on the public health merits of building safer streets. 

With that safety came a 177-percent increase in bicycle volumes in New York City, which means the bike lanes may have encouraged more people to take up biking. 

For a city and country currently wrangling with an obesity epidemic (Cincinnati’s obesity rate was 31.3 percent in 2010), that should be a welcome prospect.

The public health merits aren’t exclusive to New York City, either.

A February 2012 study from Canadian researchers methodically looked at route types and injuries in Toronto and Vancouver to find out whether bike lanes are actually safer. The result: Bike lanes can reduce the chance of an injury by nearly half. The researchers concluded, “The lower risks on quiet streets and with bike-specific infrastructure along busy streets support the route-design approach used in many northern European countries. Transportation infrastructure with lower bicycling injury risks merits public health support to reduce injuries and promote cycling.”

The study’s findings swing both ways. Cyclists obviously face fewer injuries, but drivers and pedestrians also get to worry about fewer collisions.

For the Cincinnati area, more emphasis on biking could also help reduce the region’s air pollution problem, which a report from the American Lung Association recently found to be among the worst in the nation. When someone chooses to go to the grocery store, work or bar on a bicycle instead of a car, they’re helping reduce the amount of particle and ozone pollution in the air, which can help lead to healthier outcomes — lower rates of cancer and respiratory disease in particular — for the region as a whole.

The good news is city officials have already made some strides to build more infrastructure for bicycles. The parking plan, which, if it survives court battles and an ongoing referendum effort, would lease the city’s parking assets to the Port Authority for a large one-time infusion of money and smaller annual payments, would help the city acquire the Wasson Line Right-of-Way for the development of a bike trail. The city says the development would “positively affect the residential, commercial, educational and recreational quality of life in the neighborhoods of Evanston, Hyde Park, Mount Lookout and Oakley.” 

Plan Cincinnati, the city’s first master plan since 1980, also pushes bike lanes as a major alternative to traditional methods of transportation. City government hasn’t committed funds to the master plan, but city officials, including City Council, have endorsed the plan as the city’s ongoing blueprint.

Given the research and the city administration’s goal to outgrow budgetary problems with a stronger economy, those seem like perfectly sensible plans. But with the city facing a $35 million deficit in fiscal year 2014 and the parking plan wrangled in a referendum effort and court battles, it’s going to require a lot of public support to finalize the plans’ implementations.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com and @germanrlopez



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